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Legislatively Speaking

Confederate Statues, BLM, Masks

Lena C. Taylor

Is this a moment or a movement? We have all been forced to ask this question, as we lay witness to the social and political upheaval coursing through our nation’s veins. In just a few short months, we have seen seismic shifts or changes that last year seemed impossible. Whether marches, monuments or mandates, civic engagement is on auto drive. And for some reason, I keep humming the old civil rights song “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round.” As the lyrics go, “I’m gonna keep on walkin’, keep on talkin, marching into freedom land”.

But the broader question has become, what does “freedom land” look like? The framers of the constitution described freedom sort of as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Of course, even back then, freedom meant different things for different people. Your gender, race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status determined what “freedom” you were afforded. Eventually, we figured out that understanding our “rights” helped us to better recognize our freedom. It is through the discussion of voting rights, civil rights, women’s rights, disability rights……you get the picture…. that we are better positioned to talk about freedom. It is in policy and legislative changes that we are best able to protect both rights and freedom. However, this is easy said than done.

Without fail, we are also charged with figuring out where do the rights of one man begin and another man end. There are two people often quoted in looking for an answer. The French novelist, Victor Hugo addressed it by saying, “The liberty of one citizen ends where the liberty of another citizen begins.” Of course, in true American fashion, President Abraham Lincoln explained that, “My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.” We are forced to reconcile with the notion of freedom and that reckoning has come today. We are in a movement and we’ve been here before.

For example, although it seems like a hundred years ago, remember the battle around public smoking? Did the right to “light up” and smoke interfere with the right to inhale clean, non-cancer-causing air? Actually, the first law to ban public smoking was put in place 30-years ago. The majority of Americans have accepted that second-hand smoke is real. Smokers realized that their freedom could infringe upon the rights of others and non-smokers acknowledged that smokers had rights, as well. Concessions were made, legislatively, to accommodate the rights of both.

Today, we are being asked to reconcile the fact that confederate monuments, mean different things to different people. Black Lives Matter, which started as a hashtag after the killing of Trayvon Martin, and evolved into a social justice organization, has the right to exist. Additionally, residents have a right to be safe from the spread of COVID-19 by the use of a mask. We have to figure how to co-exist when our views differ. However, as in the case of the public smoking debate, when the physical and mental health rights of residents are at stake, remember your rights end when they literally hurt someone else.

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